Borowski v The Attorney General of Canada  1 S.C.R. 342: Mootness -- Abortion provisions of Criminal Code -- Provisions under challenge already found invalid -- Ancillary questions relating to Charter rights of the foetus -- Whether or not issue moot -- Whether or not Court should exercise discretion to hear case -- Whether or not Charter rights extending to foetus -- Charter issues ancillary to question of validity of abortion provisions of Criminal Code -- Provisions under challenge already found invalid -- Standing
Present: Dickson C.J. and McIntyre, Lamer, Wilson, La Forest, L'Heureux-Dubé and Sopinka JJ.
ON APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF APPEAL FOR SASKATCHEWAN
Appeal -- Mootness -- Abortion provisions of Criminal Code -- Provisions under challenge already found invalid -- Ancillary questions relating to Charter rights of the foetus -- Whether or not issue moot -- Whether or not Court should exercise discretion to hear case -- Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1970, c. C-34, s. 251 -- Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, ss. 7, 15.
Criminal law -- Abortion -- Provisions under challenge already found invalid -- Ancillary questions relating to Charter rights of the foetus -- Whether or not issue moot -- Whether or not Court should exercise discretion to hear case.
Constitutional law -- Charter of Rights -- Right to life, liberty and security of the person -- Right to equality before and under the law -- Whether or not Charter rights extending to foetus -- Charter issues ancillary to question of validity of abortion provisions of Criminal Code -- Provisions under challenge already found invalid -- Whether or not issue moot -- Whether or not Court should exercise discretion to hear case.
Civil procedure -- Standing -- Standing originally found because action seeking declaration as to legislation's validity -- Provisions under challenge already found invalid -- Whether or not standing as originally determined -- Whether or not s. 24(1) of the Charter and s. 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 able to support claim for standing.
Appellant attacked the validity of s. 251(4), (5) and (6) of the Criminal Code relating to abortion on the ground that they contravened the life and security and the equality rights of the foetus, as a person, protected by ss. 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Appellant's standing had been found on the basis that he was seeking a declaration that legislation is invalid, that there was a serious issue as to its invalidity, that he had a genuine interest as a citizen in the validity of the legislation and that there was no other reasonable and effective manner in which the issue could be brought before the Court.
The Court of Queen's Bench found s. 251(4), (5) and (6) did not violate the Charter as a foetus was not protected by either s. 7 or s. 15 of the Charter and also held that the s. 1 of Canadian Bill of Rights did not give the courts the right to assess the substantive content or wisdom of legislation. The Court of Appeal concluded that neither s. 7 nor s. 15 of the Charter applied to a foetus. The constitutional questions stated in this Court queried: (1) if a foetus had the right to life as guaranteed by s. 7 of the Charter; (2) if so, whether s. 251(4), (5) and (6) of the Criminal Code violated the principles of fundamental justice contrary to s. 7 of the Charter; (3) whether a foetus had the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination because of age or mental or physical disability as guaranteed by s. 15 of the Charter; (4) if so, whether s. 251(4), (5) and (6) of the Criminal Code violated s. 15; and (5) if questions (2) and (4) were answered affirmatively, whether s. 251(4), (5) and (6) of the Criminal Code were justified by s. 1 of the Charter. All of s. 251, however, was struck down subsequent to the Court of Appeal's decision but before the appeal reached this Court as a result of this Court's decision in R. v. Morgentaler (No. 2).
A serious issue existed at the commencement of the appeal as to whether the appeal was moot. Questions also existed as to whether the appellant had lost his standing and, indeed, whether the matter was justiciable. These issues were addressed as a preliminary matter and decision on them was reserved. The Court then heard argument on the merits of the appeal so that the whole appeal could be decided without recalling the parties for argument should it decide that the appeal should proceed notwithstanding the preliminary issues.
Held: The appeal should be dismissed.
The appeal is moot and the Court should not exercise its discretion to hear it. Moreover, appellant no longer has standing to pursue the appeal as the circumstances upon which his standing was originally premised have disappeared.
The doctrine of mootness is part of a general policy that a court may decline to decide a case which raises merely a hypothetical or abstract question. An appeal is moot when a decision will not have the effect of resolving some controversy affecting or potentially affecting the rights of the parties. Such a live controversy must be present not only when the action or proceeding is commenced but also when the court is called upon to reach a decision. The general policy is enforced in moot cases unless the court exercises its discretion to depart from it.
The approach with respect to mootness involves a two-step analysis. It is first necessary to determine whether the requisite tangible and concrete dispute has disappeared rendering the issues academic. If so, it is then necessary to decide if the court should exercise its discretion to hear the case. (In the interest of clarity, a case is moot if it does not present a concrete controversy even though a court may elect to address the moot issue.)
This appeal is moot as there is no longer a concrete legal dispute. The live controversy underlying this appeal -- the challenge to the constitutionality of s. 251(4), (5) and (6) of the Criminal Code -- disappeared when s. 251 was struck down in R. v. Morgentaler (No. 2). None of the relief sought in the statement of claim was relevant. Three of the five constitutional questions that were set explicitly concerned s. 251 and were no longer applicable. The remaining two questions addressed the scope of ss. 7 and 15 of the Charter and were not severable from the context of the original challenge to s. 251.
A constitutional question cannot bind this Court and may not be used to transform an appeal into a reference. Constitutional questions are stated to define with precision the constitutional points at issue, not to introduce new issues, and accordingly, cannot be used as an independent basis for supporting an otherwise moot appeal.
The second stage in the analysis requires that a court consider whether it should exercise its discretion to decide the merits of the case, despite the absence of a live controversy. Courts may be guided in the exercise of their discretion by considering the underlying rationale of the mootness doctrine.
The first rationale for the policy with respect to mootness in that a court's competence to resolve legal disputes is rooted in the adversary system. A full adversarial context, in which both parties have a full stake in the outcome, is fundamental to our legal system. The second is based on the concern for judicial economy which requires that a court examine the circumstances of a case to determine if it is worthwhile to allocate scarce judicial resources to resolve the moot issue. The third underlying rationale of the mootness doctrine is the need for courts to be sensitive to the effectiveness or efficacy of judicial intervention and demonstrate a measure of awareness of the judiciary's role in our political framework. The Court, in exercising its discretion in an appeal which is moot, should consider the extent to which each of these three basic factors is present. The process is not mechanical. The principles may not all support the same conclusion and the presence of one or two of the factors may be overborne by the absence of the third, and vice versa.
The Court should decline to exercise its discretion to decide this appeal on its merits because of concerns for judicial economy and for the Court's role in the law-making process. The absence of an adversarial relationship was of little concern: the appeal was argued as fully as if it were not moot.
With respect to judicial economy, none of the factors justifying the application of judicial resources applied. The decision would not have practical side effects on the rights of the parties. The case was not one that was capable of repetition, yet evasive of review: it will almost certainly be brought before the Court within a specific legislative context or possibly in review of specific governmental action. An abstract pronouncement on foetal rights here would not necessarily obviate future repetitious litigation. It was not in the public interest, notwithstanding the great public importance of the question involved, to address the merits in order to settle the state of the law. A decision as to whether ss. 7 and 15 of the Charter protect the rights of the foetus is not in the public interest due to the potential uncertainty that could result from such a decision absent a legislative context.
A proper awareness of the Court's law-making function dictated against the Court's exercising its discretion to decide this appeal. The question posed here was not the question raised in the original action. Indeed, what was sought -- a Charter interpretation in the absence of legislation or other governmental action bringing it into play -- would turn this appeal into a private reference. The Court, if it were to exercise its discretion, would intrude on the right of the executive to order a reference and pre-empt a possible decision of Parliament by dictating the form of legislation it should enact. To do so would be a marked departure from the Court's traditional role.
The appellant also lacked standing to pursue this appeal given the fact that the original basis for his standing no longer existed. Two significant changes in the nature of this action occurred since standing was granted by this Court in 1981. Firstly, the claim is now premised primarily upon an alleged right of a foetus to life and equality pursuant to ss. 7 and 15 of the Charter. Secondly, the legislative context of original claim disappeared when s. 251 of the Criminal Code was struck down. Standing could not be based on s. 24(1) of the Charter for an infringement or denial of a person's own Charter-based right was required. Here, the rights allegedly violated were those of a foetus. Standing could not be based on s. 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 as this is restricted to litigants challenging a law or governmental action pursuant to power granted by law.
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